This film is of historical interest as it is the only record of the first production of Kenneth McMillan’s choreography to the music of Prokofiev.
The ballet was developed with, and planned for, the premier principal dancers of the Royal Ballet at the time, Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, but they got relegated to the second cast and missed out on being immortalized on screen – a great shame and although the decision to replace them must have made box office sense, I have heard from people who were lucky enough to see them dance fifty years ago that they were exceptionally good.
In this film we have the greatest and most famed pair of dancers of the day, the incomparably beautiful Rudolf Nureyev, and the too-old but sweetly convincing Margot Fonteyn, as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. There are only a handful of films available of this pair dancing together, and of course film can never truly replicate the sense of ‘being there’, but they make a potent duo and are entertaining to watch.
As a film, though, this disappoints. Paul Czinner – who had directed a number of films before including Olivier’s Bard debut in ‘As You Like It’, puts at the start a flowery claim that he has discovered a new way to film dance theatre, but it really isn’t that good – the famed balcony sequence is partly in shadowy darkness, and there are too many long shots where a close-up would have been welcomed. In one key scene in the first marketplace scene our first view of Nureyev’s Romeo is inexplicably blocked by another dancer coming into shot, which is really unforgivable.
As a filmed record of a new and breathtaking piece of performance choreography, this is worth watching, although the stunning score is buried in an unappealing mono mix, and some of the dancers are too heavily made up for the screen.
For the definitive screen version of the ballet I much prefer the Royal Ballet’s version of two decades later, where Wayne Ealing and Alessandra Ferri – helped by new filming techniques, no doubt – succeed in bringing true emotion as well as athletic technique to their roles.
Devotees of the stars on show will want to add this to their collections, though, and you will also see Anthony Dowell and others at the peak of their dancing careers.